Utah livestock producers are happy that a congressional proposal to boost grazing fees on public lands by nearly 500 percent was defeated at the last minute during the House and Senate debate on the new federal budget.

If an amendment to the Department of Interior budget had been approved, grazing fees would have been increased from the present $1.81 per animal unit month to $8.70 over the next four years.An AUM is the amount of rangeland it takes to feed livestock for a month and, in the West, it is often many acres.

Officials of the Utah Cattlemen's Association, the Utah Farm Bureau, the Utah-Idaho Farmers Union, the Utah Wool Growers and other local farm organizations credited hard work by Sens. Jake Garn, R-Utah, and James A. McClure, R-Idaho, both members of the House-Senate Conference Committee, with the proposal's defeat at about 4 a.m. Sunday.

The House passed the measure in its Interior budget Oct. 16, but the Senate refused to include it in its Interior budget when it was passed last Wednesday.

When the House-Senate Conference Committee refused to put the measure in the Senate budget this past weekend, this forced the House, fighting to get its work done so legislators could get home to campaign, to take the measure out of its Interior budget.

Livestock producers' joy may be short-lived, however, as the proponents of the amendment, especially Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., have vowed to reintroduce the measure in Congress as early as possible next year.

Glen Larson, a Spanish Fork cattle producer and president of the Utah Cattlemen's Association, said the National Wildlife Federation and the Wilderness Society pushed the Synar amendment, claiming the grazing fee is a subsidy and encourages the deterioration of federal lands.

He called both charges bunk. "Because of ranchers' stewardship of the land and the partnership between government and ranchers, public range conditions are better today than they have been in 100 years.

"The grazing fee represents only 15 to 20 percent of the true costs of running livestock on federal lands. Permitees pay for water developments, fence installation and repairs and many improvements on rangeland they don't even own," Larson said.

"In addition, transportation costs are higher, predator losses larger, calf and lamb crops are smaller and weaning weights are lighter" than when animals are grazed on private lands.

Larson said Department of Interior data shows Western ranchers pay their fair share.

Utah Farm Bureau officials said Tuesday they will spearhead the establishment of an informal coalition between farmers and ranchers in the 13 Western states to fight the Synar amendment.

Tom Bingham, UFB vice president for public policy, said the coalition will try to "educate Eastern congressmen that we have a whole different set of problems and situations in the West.

"Rep. McClure of Oklahoma lives in a state with no public lands and where private grazing land is fat with grass. He and other Easterners ought to visit the West and see for themselves what Western rangelands look like.

"We have to truck cattle long distances to get them to federal rangelands in the first place, and cattlemen in Utah face many costs that Easterners don't even appreciate, much less have to contend with."

John Berg, executive vice president of the Utah Cattlemen's Association, said his organization will work wholeheartedly with any farm-ranch coalition and with any farm groups to fight an increase in public lands grazing fees.

"Easterners have to realize that comparing private grazing lands with public grazing lands is like comparing a house that is ready to move into with a house you have to build yourself from scratch," Berg said.